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US Ag Secretary Glickman on the Changing Prospects of Biotechnology



April 30, 1999 -- AgAnswers, Purdue University

Reacting yesterday (4/29) to news that two grocery store chains in
the United Kingdom vowed to remove all foods containing genetically
modified food products, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman told
an audience at Purdue: "My belief is that farmers and consumers will
come to see the benefits of these products. But," he added, "we can't
force these new genetically engineered foods down consumers' throats."
Glickman says scientists and the agribusiness industry must not
dismiss the skepticism, but instead focus on consumer education, public
information and on maintaining sound scientific practices.
Consumer skepticism throughout Europe about the safety of foods
processed from genetically engineered grains poses potentially huge
challenges for American farmers who have been planting biotech seeds,
such as Bt corn and Roundup Ready corn and soybeans.
In 1998, almost one-third of U.S. soybean acres and about a
quarter of U.S. corn acres were planted in genetically engineered seed.
Those percentages were in the single digits one year earlier.
However, Europeans are leery of newfangled food products,
especially after the attention to "mad cow" disease two years ago, says
Ohio State agricultural economist Tom Sporleder. There's an outcry
about food safety in Europe, even though "mad cow" disease didn't
involve genetic engineering, Sporleder says.
"'Mad cow' disease scared the hell out of the Europeans," he says.
"I think they're saying to the scientific community, 'Prove beyond a
doubt biotech is safe.' In the long-run, I really believe the world
will accept food products made from genetically altered grains."
Some American farmersand food processorsmay be in a bind  if
the European Union (EU) succeeds in pressing for a major round of talks
of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in November, Sporleder says.
The EU wants processed foods to be labeled if they are made from
genetically engineered crops, Sporleder says. In addition, the EU is
concerned about pollen "drift" from fields planted with genetically
modified crops to fields of conventional crops. The current U.S.
position is that genetically altered food need not be labeled.
The labeling issue is significant because processed foods are a
major segment of trade in the globalized economy, Sporleder says.
American processors could comply, but not without considerable expense
that would raise food costs.
"It would affect farmers ultimately," Sporleder says. "Our food
system is totally interdependent, and you would have a ripple effect
back to that field of corn."
European attitudes have already resulted in a flurry of laws by
individual nations concerning the identity of foods, Sporleder says. In
some European countries, retailers and restaurants must provide
information to consumers about whether foods come from genetically
modified sources, he says.
Some American grain handlers already are heeding European concerns
by announcing they will not buy grains produced from genetically
engineered seeds that are banned by the EU.
Sporleder says he doesn't think Europe's position is motivated by
protectionist concerns against U.S. biotech industries, such as
Monsanto, which produces the genetically engineered Roundup Ready corn
and soybeans. Many European companies already are involved in
genetically engineered products, such as seeds and medicines, he says.
Europeans attitudes may start to change when they see
benefits from genetically engineered products, such as edible vaccines,
But it may take many years, Sporleder says. "U.S. consumers, and maybe
North American consumers in general tend to accept biotechnology more
readily and sort of have more faith in it than Europeans," he says.
A possible compromise for the U.S. and EU's trade positions is a
concept called "permissive labeling." It would require labels saying
food "may" have been made with genetic engineering.
A dual commodity market also could emerge for genetically
engineered and non-altered crops, Sporleder says. The pricing structure
could get complicated as more genetic traits are added to conventional
hybrids, a practice known as "stacking," he says. For example, crops
might be priced by the kinds and numbers of genetically engineered
traits introduced to the seed.
"There's no end to what could happen, if each of these traits have
some market value," he says. "In the long term, I don't think it's
going to be a problem because the market will adjust to it."
In the meantime, American farmers should try to protect themselves
by making sure they have a market for any genetically engineered seed
they plant, Sporleder says. "They have to realize they may in fact have
a limited market for these kinds of crops," he says.
As for a prediction on the outcome of the WTO talks, Sporleder
says: "It's going to depend on how shrewd the negotiators are on both
sides."